Senate agrees to open doors on committee meetings

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

After more than 10 years of trying to open conference committees, new members of the Senate may have made the difference.

The Senate voted late Thursday night 33-8 to approve a measure to
open the committee meetings, some of the last shuttered gatherings at
the Roundhouse.

House Bill 393 now goes to Gov. Bill Richardson, who said earlier Thursday he would sign the bill.

Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, has carried the measure for years.

“As the public becomes more familiar with what we do here, the more respect they will have,” she said.

“It is the secrecy that breeds suspicion. That is something we can
very easily end by sending this vote that we want to end these closed
conference committees.”

Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, said there should be no problem with
the public seeing what elected officials are doing. “It comes down to
behavior and whether you think behavior will change if you think other
people are listening,” he said.

Seven freshmen and Peter Wirth, who until this year served in the
House, are serving their first terms in the Senate. Many of the newbies
replaced staunch opponents to the measure.

The meetings happen when both chambers pass similar versions of the
same measure, such as the budget. Three lawmakers from each chamber are
appointed to work behind closed doors to come to agreement on the
measure.

Good-government advocates long have said that opening the meetings
would allow the public to see what happens on some of the state’s most
important legislation.

Some lawmakers say it would allow them, too, to see what’s going on.
Legislators not on the committee have been barred from attending.

The bill comes in a session where a slew of measures have been
proposed to open government. One big change approved so far: The Senate
this session started webcasting meetings on the Internet.

Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, supported the measure during
Thursday night’s hour-and-a-half-long debate on the floor. “On the one
hand, we cry for transparency, we want oversight of the executive …
and it’s high time we include our selves in that transparency,” she
said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who opposed the
bill, wondered why the measure didn’t apply to Cabinet members, who are
not elected officials. “Don’t you think the public deserves to be at
those types of meeting where a Cabinet secretary is talking to their
department heads?” he said.

Earlier in the day, Sanchez suggested to reporters that if the bill
passed, reporters would walk into meetings where there will be no
debate. “The bad end result is that instead of open conference
committees as you all expect # you’re going to have meetings outside of
this building,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, also opposed the
measure. He said it shouldn’t just apply to the Legislature, but also
to other branches of government, as well as members of the news media.
“I think you should open their editorial boards,” he said.

Along with Sanchez and Jennings, voting against the measure were
Sens. Stuart Ingle, Gay Kernan, Kent Cravens, Sue Wilson Beffort,
Vernon Asbill and Phil Griego.

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.